Matthew Bowman: Why the LDS Church’s new P.R. boss is drawing criticism from conservative members

On issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to the U.N., they worry he is too much “of the world.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Office Building in downtown Salt Lake City. The faith's new managing director of communication is drawing flak from some conservative corners of the faith for, among other things, his support of the United Nations.

Aaron Sherinian seems an unlikely flashpoint for political controversy.

After all, a low profile might be seen as a central qualification for his new job: managing director of the Communication Department for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But he probably hopes to be a conduit for conversation, not the topic of it.

And yet, here we are. Sherinian’s appointment has stirred up a string of protests on social media. He has been accused of being the church’s “new chief globalist.” His position “is going to confuse the membership of the church.” His public statements “are contrary to the message of the pulpit.

Some Latter-day Saints have objected to his past employment on behalf of the United Nations. They point to what they say are Sherinian’s past social media posts supporting LGBTQ pride and same-sex marriage. (Sherinian’s pre-2020 posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, are now private, but what appear to be screenshots are widely available on the internet and carry messages like “Trans rights are human rights” and images of him in a rainbow T-shirt at a Pride march.)

To make sense of these complaints, we could turn to the late Latter-day Saint sociologist Armand Mauss. He observed three decades ago that the church’s history is best understood in relation to the world around it. It might resemble a teeter-totter, dipping at one moment toward isolation and distinctiveness and at the next toward rapprochement and assimilation. The vocal factions concerned about Sherinian’s appointment perceive themselves to be faithful members but increasingly worry that church leadership is coming to resemble the rest of the world too much.

Sherinian’s résumé

Sherinian follows a number of low-key professionals in the post, including Richard Turley and Michael Otterson. On the face of it, Sherinian seems just another in that line. He served a church mission and in a mission presidency. He also has worked for nearly three decades in public relations. Like an increasing number of higher-level church employees, his career has veered in and out of the church ecosystem. He has worked for the United Nations Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the global organization but is not part of it. He also was an executive with Deseret Management Corp., a church-owned, for-profit venture that includes Bonneville Communications, the Deseret News and Deseret Book.

The difference from his predecessors is that Sherinian has an active social media presence. These days, though, that marks him as successful at his career. He seems an entirely typical P.R. specialist for any number of large organizations today, religious or not. Major corporations and international organizations today support the sorts of things Sherinian has favored.

But that may be the problem. To his critics, Sherinian is too typical, not distinct enough. The very skills and public positions that have made him a success at P.R. make his critics worry that he is too much, as Latter-day Saints say, of the world.

Anti-U.N. backlash

They raise a range of issues. Some are culture warriors appalled by the changing sexual norms of American life. Greg Matsen of Cwic Media has devoted much of his energies to exploring how social justice ideologies on the political left are incompatible with the church as he understands it. For him, Sherinian is most objectionable because of his reported social media posts on same-sex marriage. Can “you hijack the doctrine of the family in order to love and offer tolerance?” Matsen asks, showing a photo of Sherinian at a Pride march in Washington, D.C.

Other Sherinian critics describe themselves as advocates of “liberty,” leaning toward economic libertarianism. Connor Boyack — president of the Libertas Institute, a Utah-based think tank that describes its mission as building a “freer society” by eliminating the “barriers government places” on citizens — has denounced Sherinian as the church’s new “chief globalist.” Boyack has also expressed discontent with church President Russell M. Nelson for calling on Latter-day Saints to be “good global citizens” and get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I want to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and not some global government,” Boyack says, “all of this corrupt highly political crap that erodes sovereignty and destroys freedom.” He is dismayed by Sherinian’s work with the U.N., which Boyack perceives to be a fundamentally Marxist, collectivist organization that will inevitably destroy human freedom. (The church itself frequently partners with the U.N. on relief efforts.)

Sherinian supports “leftist organizations, anti-human organizations,” like the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood, Boyack warns. He quotes Sherinian saying “personnel is policy.” To Boyack, this means that Sherinian believes that the church’s staff will be guiding the general authorities, not the other way around. “Staff sets the agenda,” Boyack says. He worries that the “church leaders, while entitled to inspiration, are not always inspired,” and thus might be vulnerable to manipulation by staff like Sherinian.

Many of Sherinian’s critics fret about all of these things. Eric Moutsos, a former police officer and conservative devotee. Less interested in ideological nuance than Boyack or Matsen, Moutsos views Sherinian as a caricature of what many modern conservatives fear: a “radical activist” on hot-button, “woke” issues.

Too worldly?

Not all of these factions agree on everything, even the primary reasons for objecting to Sherinian’s appointment. But there is a broad consensus that Mauss’ idea that the church oscillates between friendliness and resistance to the world around it helps us to understand. Boyack’s reference to God’s kingdom and Moutsos’ labeling of Sherinian as a “radical” both point to it. These people share a deep discomfort with what we might call cosmopolitanism, the idea that the church might look more and more like the world Sherinian is from: elite, coastal, internationalist, and comfortable with cultural diversity and pluralism. To the inhabitants of that world, from large corporations to the major news media, Sherinian’s statements on gender and international cooperation are accepted as a matter of course. To these critics, the fact that Sherinian worked in conjunction with the U.N. and is fluent in contemporary corporate policy on diversity, equity and inclusion is a flaw.

In this sense, Sherinian is objectionable less for his own positions than for what he represents: the slow assimilation of the church into those circles in which Sherinian has operated. It is not any particular policy as much as it is the church’s own identity as a separate community with a distinctive way of life. Sherinian says the values he prizes about his faith are in harmony with the cosmopolitan values of bridge-building and pluralism. He describes the “beautiful tapestry” of the “worldwide church” and stresses that the gospel of Christ for him is “generous, inclusive and personal.”

While many members and outsiders welcome that rhetoric, such talk does not represent the church these critics want. And it’s unlikely Sherinian or anyone else can persuade them otherwise. So for now, at least, his appointment is yet another sign that church leaders face a fractious flock.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of the recently released “The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America” and, in 2012, “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”